(Originally posted 2nd May, 2004)
Is there natural value to playing that we as adults have somehow managed to forget? Does it serve some higher function, other than just learning?
Kids seem to figure out play all by themselves. All over the world, young kids will invent games and stuff, playing with whatever they happen to have handy and go at it for hours on end. In the process, they have a lot of fun and happiness, regardless of how crappy the rest of their lives are.
But as adults, we seem to lose that childish spirit and pretty much stop playing games the way we used to when we were kids. If we do play something, it’s often some form of sport, or some other board game that often limits the imagination by having a defined set of rules that has to be followed. More and more these days, people are turning to things like video games, which while they are fun to play, don’t force us to use our imaginations at all.
Kids don’t seem to need to worry about that sort of thing. They’re happy to run around, playing soldiers or cowboys and indians or whatever happens to take their fancy at the time. If they have toy cars, they’ll build elaborate roads and drive the cars around for ages, often with nothing more important than just driving around.
What purpose do these sorts of childish games serve? I think it’s got something to do with developing and using our imaginations. Kids find that creativity comes naturally to them. They’ll build stuff out of whatever happens to be around, or they’ll invent elaborate stories for their games and everything that goes along with that.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, talks about his own experiences with play in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. He writes:
As soon as I was through eating, I began playing, and continued to do so until the patients arrived; and if I was finished with my work early enough in the evening, I went back to building. In the course of this activity my thoughts clarified, and I was able to grasp the fantasies whose presence in myself I dimly felt.
Naturally, I thought about the significance of what I was doing, and asked myself, “Now, really, what are you about? You are building a small town, and doing it as if it were a rite!” I had no answer to my question, only the inner certainty that I was on the way to discovering my own myth. For the building game was only a beginning. It released a stream of fantasies which I later carefully wrote down.
This sort of thing has been consistent with me, and at any time in my later life when I came up against a blank wall I painted a picture or hewed stone. Each such experience proved to be a rite d’entrée for the ideas and works that followed hard upon it.
I think what Old Carl here is saying is that the value of play is that it seems to unleash something within our own minds that helps us in our day-to-day existence. It may be that it just fires up our own creativity and helps us be more open to different ways of thinking about things. As adults, we stop doing such things and find our minds closed to new ideas and our creativities hampered by rigid thinking and habits, which is usually to our detriment.
So maybe we should all take some time and do what Jung did: get out and start having fun the way we did when we were kids. Throw away the rules and start inventing stuff again, simply for the sheer joy of it. If nothing else, it might help you relax.